AUDIO RECORDING: 6:23
Sergeant Hulka: Men, welcome to the United States Army. I’m Sergeant Hulka. I’m your drill sergeant. Before we proceed any further, we gotta get something straight. Your mamas are not here to take care of you now. It’s just you, me, and Uncle Sam. And before I leave you, you’re gonna find out that me and Uncle Sam are one in the same.
John Winger (Bill Murray): Uncle Hulka?
Sergeant Hulka: When I tell you move, you’ll move fast. When I tell you to jump, you’re gonna say, “How high?” And make no mistake. I don’t care where you come from, I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care how smart you are, I don’t care how dumb you are, ’cause I’m gonna teach every last one of you how to eat, sleep, walk, talk, shoot, sh*t like a United States soldier. Understand?
Cruiser: Yes, sir.
Sergeant Hulka: You don’t say “sir” to me, I’m a sergeant, I work for a living.
Soldiers: Yes, sergeant!
Sergeant Hulka: I didn’t hear you!
Soldiers: YES, SERGEANT!
Sergeant Hulka: That’s what I wanna hear.
John Winger: Do you think this guy’s over-doing it a bit?
OK, maybe your civilian boss is not as animated or intense as Sergeant Hulka. However, he or she probably does not want to be called “sir” or “ma’am”. So don’t be the veteran that can’t break the habit the of addressing people as “Sir” and “Ma’am”.
Military courtesy and professional conduct dictate that soldiers address senior officers as “sir” or “ma’am”, and enlisted soldiers by their rank. Every veteran learned this protocol in basic training, and used it effortlessly as part of their daily vernacular while serving in the military.
It’s a tough habit to break.
When veterans transition, they are usually very motivated and eager to make a good impression and demonstrate the qualities that civilian employers most admire in veterans: work ethic, selflessness, initiative, motivation, and leadership ability. The transitioning veteran’s high energy level and eagerness to do a good job is subconsciously accompanied by the old “can-do” language. In the military, it signaled a level of readiness and confidence to complete the assigned mission.
“Can your troops secure the battalion’s flank?”
As all veterans know, deference to authority is critical in military units. Can you imagine the chaos and danger that would exist if the General gave an order to advance in combat, and all of the subordinates decided to discuss it on their own timetable?
However, what is a natural and necessary method of communication in the military, where discipline and order is a matter of life and death, may be misconstrued in the civilian world. Even in the South, where children are taught that good manners and charm include the use of “sir” and “ma’am”, it is often inappropriate in the workplace.
Creativity over Deference:
The civilian workplace usually values “creative problem-solvers” more than “deferential order-followers”. Of course this depends on the nature of the business.
As a general rule, if a business is technically advanced and knowledge-based, creative problem solving is valued over structure and order. On the other hand, with an unskilled workforce, the civilian boss will probably prefer rigid order following, and the formal terms of “sir” and “ma’am” may be appropriate.
In skill based and highly educated workplaces, the boss is most interested in how she can utilize fresh perspectives, new information, evolving technology and “out of the box” thinking to improve the work product and bottom line performance.
Perception of subordination:
The use of “sir” or “ma’am” may be interpreted by the boss as a sign that the veteran is not yet comfortable engaging more senior colleagues in conversations about complex issues that require peers to engage in an open exchange of opinions.
Annoyed by the implied insult:
Senior employees who are sensitive and threatened by younger employees may perceive the terms to be condescending, distant or an insult (based on their age). Many baby boomers learned from well-intentioned parents that it was proper and respectful to address your elders in this manner. Don’t be surprised if an older colleague is slightly offended and responds with some form of the question: “Are you implying that I am old!?”
Unwanted formality and rigidness:
A veteran who is constantly using the terms “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect, may eventually be told by the boss not to be so rigid and formal, and to dial it down a notch. “No need to call me ma’am or Mrs., just call me Jane”.
Failure to recognize credentials:
Some may construe the use of the terms as a failure to recognize his/her correct title or position. Senator Barbara Boxer once told a brigadier general to refer to her as “senator” rather than “ma’am” at a congressional hearing. “I worked so hard to get that title,” she said, “so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”
All veterans use the terms “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect, order and positive affirmation. However, it immediately exposes the veteran as disconnected and “out of their element”. I recommend avoiding the terms, and projecting yourself as an equal member of the team.